Exhibit Piece / Real Life

‘Exhibit Piece’ is a short story written by Philip K Dick in 1954 which can be found in Gollallacz’s The Father-Thing: Volume Three of the Collected Short Stories along with the likes of ‘Sales Pitch’ and ‘The Father-Thing’.

The story is an exploration of the concept of shifting and ambiguous realities – a familiar theme in a lot of PKD’s writing and exemplified on screen in Amazon Video’s The Man in the High Castle based on PKD’s novel of the same name.

In ‘Exhibit Piece’ eccentric scholar George Miller works on a public exhibit for the History Agency. In a future populated by robot taxi drivers – like Johnny Cab in Total Recall – where people wear clothes without *gasp* buttons and a World Directorate is in power, he spends his days studying the middle twentieth century.

He thinks of the 1950s as a time when ‘men were free and could speak their minds’. His boss, Fleming, worries about Miller’s eccentricities and love for a society two hundred years in the past as it is in conflict with current social mores.

A Californian bungalow forms the centre of the exhibit and one day Miller thinks someone is inside it. He finds a woman with two teenage boys dressed in period clothing and eating breakfast. They greet him as the man of the house and looking out of the window he realises that the projected backdrop is now a real view of neighbouring houses and gardens. He has somehow inexplicably travelled to the 1950s.

Memories he didn’t realise he possessed come flooding into his head – the names his two sons, where he works in downtown San Francisco, his boss, the Buick he drives, hot cakes on Friday – it’s as if he’s entered another life. Feeling confused, instead of driving to work, he visits a psychiatrist.

Miller admits to the psychiatrist that he can’t decide if he is an historian from the future trapped in his own exhibit or if he is a stressed 1950s businessman with an escape fantasy. During the session Miller looks at the situation from a different angle and realises that it could be that both worlds are real. He goes back to the bungalow, searches for and finds a shimmering portal. The way back to the future. Great Scott!

He sees Fleming on the other side of the portal, blows pipe smoke in his face and tells him that he’s staying in the 1950s. Fleming just thinks Miller means that he is staying put inside the exhibit and tells him that he is delusional. Carnap, President of the Board, the highest ranking official in N’York, turns up and tells Miller that as an insane person he will be euthanised and that they’ll destroy the exhibit on which he thinks Miller has based his delusion.

Unfazed, Miller says that because he is beyond the exhibit their actions would just be sealing him off where he is happy to stay. He goes back home and opens the newspaper only to read that Russia has a ‘cobalt bomb’ which could end the world.

It’s typical of PKD that it’s not clear if Miller is an insane 1950s businessman, or an insane 2150s historian, or indeed somehow both a businessman and historian and not at all crazy.

‘Real Life’ was episode five of the television anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams shown yesterday in the UK on Channel 4. The TV show took the core element from ‘Exhibit Piece’ – that a person can jump into the life of another and builds a new story around it. The end credits of the show don’t identify ‘Exhibit Piece’ and just say ‘based on the short story by Philip K Dick’ and in a way I guess that obfuscation is suitable since it is quite far removed from the source (but not as far removed as ‘Crazy Diamond‘ was from ‘Sales Pitch‘).

It starts with Sarah, a policewoman played by Anna Paquin (X-Men Days of Future Past), in a city full of huge adverts much like Blade Runner with her work partner Jacob Vargas (Sons of Anarchy) in a flying car. This is a future where fries are called fingers and phones have holographic displays.

Sarah is trying to get over the trauma of a mass shooting in which she survived. Her wife (Rachel Lefevre, I think) who works at a software development company gives her a new product to try – a little disc that she can stick to her head which interacts with her cranial implants and sends her on a ‘vacation’. Similarities to Total Recall are probably not coincidental.

Sarah enters the body of George Miller (Terrence Howard) billionaire owner of Avacom a (yes you guessed) software development company. He’s out at night near some warehouses on a Bruce Wayne style vigilante mission with his buddy played by Sam Witwer (who voiced Maul in Star Wars Rebels). He’s trying to track down the guy who kidnapped and killed his wife who looks just like Sarah’s wife in her reality.

Much like Miller when he goes into the 1950s exhibit, Howard’s character is confused and slowly remembers only bits and bobs about his life and in fact this works both ways. Neither Miller or Sarah are sure which reality is ‘real life’.

Miller’s doctor (Lara Pulver) and Sarah’s wife replace the role of psychiatrist in the TV show. The doctor tells him that it’s unlikely that he’s actually ‘a lesbian supercop from the future in a flying car’ (I may be paraphrasing), and Sarah back in her life tells her wife that it’s like she is in a man’s science fiction fantasy.

The end of the show is far more conclusive than the end of the short story. Miller chooses to stay in his life because he was having an affair with the doctor and thinks he deserves to be punished by the memory of his dead wife. Sarah chooses to stay in that reality too because she thinks she needs to be punished for the sin of surviving the shooting. Her survivors guilt motivates her to attach the little disc to her bonce one last time and she lapses into a coma with her implants sustaining the simulation. In that reality Miller has stomped on his facemask which was his conduit to Sarah’s world.

There’s no magic door as such (the disc and mask replace the portal) and it’s revealed that Miller’s reality is a simulation or exhibit if you like so there’s no time travel involved. However the protagonist still has to choose one of two realities much like in the original story. The makers of the TV show have done a good job of adapting this tale and making it into a good episode which I rate just behind ‘The Commuter‘.

Image: Daniil Kuzelev from Unsplash.com

 

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